Amid cold weather, two different visions for helping New York's homeless

New York's governor wants the state's homeless to head for shelters when temperatures drop. But some say that could create more troubles. The state plan coincides with fresh attempts to address a growing problem in the city.

Julie Jacobson/AP
A pedestrian drops money in a cup for a homeless man near Times Square, Monday, Jan. 4, 2016, in New York. As bitter winter temperatures finally arrived in the Northeast, New York’s governor issued an executive order requiring the homeless to be forcibly removed from the street in freezing weather.

At the El Camino Inn, a homeless shelter in Queens, Jeremiah Murphy and his wife, Amber, continue to struggle to find a permanent place to live.

They’ve been in and out of the New York City shelter system for a couple of years now. Ms. Murphy has been diagnosed with a degenerative spinal problem, and Mr. Murphy, though he volunteers as an outreach worker for Picture the Homeless, an advocacy group based in Manhattan, hasn’t been able to find a full-time job since serving some time in prison a few years ago.

So with freezing temperatures returning to New York this week, they know well the struggles that many on the streets face when the weather turns cold – and how difficult it is to navigate the labyrinths of the city’s bureaucracy for homelessness.

On Sunday, Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued a controversial executive order that would require New York City and other municipalities throughout the state to force homeless people into shelters whenever temperatures fall below freezing.

“It’s about love. It’s about compassion. It’s about helping one another and basic human decency,” Governor Cuomo told NY1, a local cable news outlet.

But the Murphys offer a different perspective. While they feel relatively safe and stable at El Camino, a seven-story former apartment building serving up to 136 families, their experience at other shelters was often grim.

“Shelters out here are not shelters – they’re sometimes worse than the streets,” Mr. Murphy says, recalling a shelter in East Harlem where he had stayed. “A lot of people don’t want to go to the shelter because they’ve got to worry about people stealing your stuff. People have knives and guns and stuff – and I’m supposed to feel some sort of safe haven?”

While many other large US cities have been modestly successful in reducing the number of people living on the streets recently, in New York the problem has spiked over the past few years, approaching levels not seen since the Great Depression, according to the Manhattan-based Coalition for the Homeless.

The problems of homelessness and New York’s shelter system have been a political albatross for the city’s famously progressive mayor, Democrat Bill de Blasio. So last month, Mr. de Blasio announced the launch of an initiative, modeled after the city’s famed CompStat policing strategy, that aims to better track homeless people and help them get off the streets.

And on Monday, following Cuomo’s executive order, he defended the city’s approach.

“We take anyone off the streets we believe is in imminent danger,” de Blasio told CBS New York. “That’s something NYPD does, that’s something our outreach workers do through our Homeless Services Department. So we have that capacity right now under state law, and we have done that for years. And we will continue to do it.”

The causes of New York’s increasing homeless population are complex, experts say, but since the Great Recession, the lack of affordable housing and skyrocketing rents in all five of New York’s boroughs have forced many to the streets. Efforts to rein in the problem have been hampered by past policy decisions, the city’s sprawling bureaucracy, and political squabbles, including between the mayor and governor.

The number of homeless New Yorkers sleeping in shelters has nearly doubled over the past decade, and the city has placed nearly 60,000 people, including about 24,000 children, into temporary housing and shelters in the past two years alone. Each night, an estimated 4,000 additional individuals are sleeping on the streets, officials say.

Yet as the Monitor found in an in-depth report in December, many US cities have been aggressively tackling the problem of homelessness – and finding success. In the wake of a challenge from the Obama administration in 2010, many cities have directed resources to helping homeless veterans – efforts that have reduced the numbers of former soldiers living on the streets by 47 percent in the past five years. New Orleans, Salt Lake City, Phoenix, and Houston have all but eliminated the number of homeless veterans on their streets.

And Philadelphia, despite having one of the worst poverty rates in the country, has one of the lowest rates of homelessness. Programs there focus on person-to-person efforts to get addicts and the mentally ill off the streets and into programs that offer long-term support, the Monitor reported.

But these cities have but a fraction of the homeless population of New York. And it’s not as if the nation’s largest city has seen no progress against the problem: New York has a number of successful programs to assist those without permanent housing.

It is now adding to its programs with the initiative that de Blasio announced last month. Called HOME-STAT, for Homeless Outreach & Mobile Engagement Street Action Teams, the initiative will combine information gathered by the police and the Department of Homeless Services into a centralized database.

Most of Manhattan will now be canvassed daily, de Blasio said, with a staff of outreach workers that will expand to more than 300, up from 175. The workers, dressed in bright green uniforms, “will make it their mission to get their clients off the street and into a healthier place, permanently,” de Blasio said in December. The mayor also said that 100 new police officers will be deployed to address the problems that come with homeless populations.

Mr. Murphy is skeptical that the approach will work.

“All it’s going to do is have more people interacting with police – and that’s not productive out here because a lot of people don’t want to deal with the cops,” he says. “A lot of people have mental health issues, substance abuse issues, and these cops are just running up on them, and now you're going to tell them to go to the shelter? Maybe they don’t want to go to the shelter.”

Advocates question the legality of forcing people into shelters – which had been tried during the administration of Mayor Ed Koch decades ago, efforts that courts judged illegal in the mid-1980s.

Former New York City officials say that the systemic problems run deep.

“Our current shelter system is a hodgepodge of repurposed manufacturing sites and rickety apartment buildings,” wrote Christine Quinn, former speaker of the New York City Council and current president of Win, an agency supporting homeless women, in The New York Times last Friday.

“In the past 20 years, only one new shelter in the system ... has been built with families in mind,” Ms. Quinn wrote. “We need to reimagine our shelters ... so that they can offer the holistic services that are critical to equipping homeless families with the skills and treatment they need.”

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